Writer Kirsten Warner on the story behind her missing the Auckland Writers Festival and why she's looking forward to Going West.
Amid the exhilaration of (finally) having her first novel published, Kirsten Warner was looking forward to this year's Auckland Writers Festival.
"I had always attended and desperately wanted to be one of the authors speaking there," says the 62-year-old. But her megawatt smile dims slightly.
Warner, an author, journalist and musician who writes poetry and plays guitar in the travelling folk blues band Bernie Griffen and the Thin Men, was to join legendary Canadian poet Anne Michaels, veteran New Zealand author Vincent O'Sullivan and cultural historian Maria Tumarkin for a discussion about the scars of World War II.
As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and member of the Auckland Second Generation Group, it's a subject she knows. She didn't make the festival. Instead, she was in hospital fighting for a semblance of the life she'd once known and loved.
In March, two months before the AWF, Warner went for a bike ride around Te Atatu's waterfront streets: "I had a bad headache and thought a bike ride would be a good way to clear away the cobwebs."
The headache got progressively worse. Always fit, active and well, Warner found herself sitting, head in her hands, on a grass verge with her bike next to her. She called Bernie, her husband of 38 years, to come for her. A couple – she wishes she knew who they were – stopped to ask if she was all right. They waited while Bernie arrived, helped her into the car and to load the bike into the boot. Warner and Griffen made it home, where she asked him to call an ambulance. It took no time at all to arrive. And then nothing. For eight weeks. No memories.
Warner missed the AWF, including the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards where she was one of four winners of best first book prizes. Bernie and their two adult children, Joseph and Marcella, collected the Hubert Church Award for Fiction on her behalf. She barely recalls them breaking the news to her.
The AWF site noted that Warner was no longer able to attend because of ill health. For those of us who read The Sound of Breaking Glass (and been taken aback that it didn't make the longlist for the Ockham's Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize), it was a jolt. How could someone who had just produced her first book – and one as vibrant, surreal, relatable and different, in the best possible way, as The Sound of Breaking Glass – have the moment snatched away?
Warner had a ruptured cerebral aneurysm - in lay terms, a brain bleed - which kills 40 per cent of those who experience one before they even make it to hospital. For those who survive, there's a 60 per cent chance they'll be permanently disabled. She wasn't expected to live.
But now the writer sits at the kitchen table of her family home, wood fire snapping as rain outside bounces off the water of a swimming pool that would have been well used when her children were younger. She smiles warmly and often, talking of her excitement about coming home (just eight weeks ago), how she's looking forward to speaking at the Going West Writers Festival next weekend and lamenting – like so many New Zealand writers – the difficulty in getting books published.
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It took more than a decade before Warner was able to see The Sound of Breaking Glass on bookstore shelves, to enjoy a sold-out session at Wellington's LitCrawl, to read passages from it at the Dunedin Library and to be signed to appear at AWF. The delay was partly because she was writing her story slowly and steadily – sometimes putting it away for months at a time as work pressures intensified – and partly because of publishing world machinations.
One company was set to publish an earlier version, then the publisher retired and his replacement didn't want it after all. Marketing departments at others weren't sure whether an intense, action-packed and enigmatic story of multi-generational trauma set in the homes and on the streets of Auckland would sell.
Warner could have abandoned her novel - there were times when she the rejection depressing and devastating. Part-time freelancing, including work with the Higher Ground Drug Rehabilitation Trust, and music kept her busy but she decided she'd put in too much work to leave it in a desk drawer.
"It was at a time when publishing was really contracting," she says, reflecting on a recent past when the death of the bookshop and actual printed copies of books was widely predicted. "But it hasn't actually worked out like that. Books are still books and people like holding a book."
Mary McCallum, publisher at Wellington's Mārako Press, decided to take a chance on the first-time author and, after further re-writes and jettisoning certain plotlines, it appeared and sold so well that it's been reprinted. Warner says it's a better book for having been so long in the writing and publishing.
The story of Christel, a harried mother of two trying to succeed in the ruthless world of reality television production, gives a vivid insight into contemporary life but she's wrestling other demons. It means the unresolved legacy of the Holocaust and the consequences of hidden adolescence trauma also emerge just as starkly.
Warner's father, Gunther, was 19 when he arrived in NZ in 1939 having found a sponsor, which meant he could leave Germany. He never saw his parents again; they died during the Holocaust and he lived his long life, says Warner, full of ghosts. She says parents who underwent that type of trauma being with them a whole set of extra fears and expectations and can be highly anxious.
"I couldn't describe my father as anxious on an everyday level but he was very anxious when I told him I was going to go to Latvia with my uncle," she recalls. "The Soviet Union had only just collapsed and he thought because the secret police still ran the country, I might never get out. He was fairly wound up about politics; he didn't like having his name on any type of list."
He joined Greenpeace, becoming one of the environmental organisation's oldest and most loyal volunteers. When he died, they named a meeting room at Auckland headquarters after him.
"I think I have worked through the issues of the second generation so, in fact, I am a much happier person. Writing the book meant that I looked really, really closely at the Holocaust itself and the legacy and what happens in the first and second generations. What's happened is that a lot of the nightmarish qualities have gone out of it for me," says Warner. "I know there are not many [novels] that are successful second generation point-of-view. People often say things to me about the 'survivor story' but it's not the survivor story and that's the difference. I knew if it was good, it was something that hadn't really been done before and I had some belief that it was good."
She's looking forward to Going West, acknowledging she's been asked several times if she's up to it. "I am sure I am. I mean, it will only be for a couple of hours and I can manage that. I'm doing most of the things I used to. I walk every day, I swim … I'm pretty well back to normal but I know I will have to simplify life."
The trouble is, there's nothing Warner really wants to give up. Certainly not her work with Higher Ground, where she and Bernie are now running a weekly music and singing group, nor their own music and not her plans for her next book. Because, yes, despite it all there will be another book.
Going West Writers opens on Friday, September 6 at the Titirangi War Memorial Hall and runs until Sunday, September 15 with events around the region. Warner is in conversation with Siobhan Harvey and Carl Shuker in Broken Pasts and Severed Futures at the hall at 10am. For all events, goingwestfest.co.nz